NEW YORK – The $25 billion Hudson Yards housing, office and retail complex was supposed to spur economic development in New York, but the promise of a bright future has given way to a bleak present dominated by the impact of COVID-19.
Last month, the site’s main tourist attraction, a free-standing spiraling staircase known as the Vessel, was closed after a third person committed suicide by jumping from the top of the 150-foot (47.5-meter)-tall structure.
With many of the shops and restaurants closed while offices and luxury condos sit empty, Hudson Yards, which covers 28 acres (11 hectares) on Manhattan’s West Side, has become a symbol of an approach that the pandemic has shown to be outmoded if not ridiculous.
But some critics contend that the coronavirus has only exposed the inherent faults in what New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman described as a “relic of dated 2000s thinking.”
“Nearly devoid of urban design, it declines to blend into the city grid,” he wrote in March 2019.
Michael Lewis, a professor of modern architecture and American art at Williams College, draws a contrast between Hudson Yards and Rockefeller Center, built in the 1930s by billionaire financier and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr.
“My critical judgment is, it is nowhere near as good as Rockefeller Center,” Lewis told EFE.
“The visitor who comes to New York and discovers Rockefeller Center – who knows nothing about New York – immediately understands it, instantly,” he said. “You know where to stand. You are brought into it by visual cues that guide you to your destination and in that sense, it’s very humane.”
“You go to Hudson Yards and you are lost in a labyrinth of buildings by different architects in different places and even though there is a very generous amount of public space, it is not humane public space,” Lewis said.
One example of the anachronistic thinking behind Hudson Yards is the developers’ decision to include a shopping mall despite a retail apocalypse in the United States that has seen scores of similar malls go out of business over the last decade.
The 18,000 sq m (194,000 sq ft) Neiman Marcus store that was meant to be the mall’s flagship closed its doors last summer when the company filed for bankruptcy protection.
The Vessel, a specimen of what Lewis calls “Instagram architecture,” is closed until further notice while the Hudson Yards developers, Related Companies and Oxford Properties, consult with suicide-prevention experts on a new design.
Thanks to work-from-home protocols due to COVID-19, the towers holding offices belonging to blue-chip tenants such as Facebook, SAP, Boston Consulting Group and L’Oreal are virtually deserted.
Hundreds of luxury condos, ranging in price from $4 million to nearly $60 million, have yet to find buyers. The developers sold only a few dozen units last year, a decline of 80 percent from 2019.
The Hudson Yards initiative began to take shape after the failure of New York’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics, which envisioned the construction of a stadium at the site.
Under then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg, the notion turned into a project on a scale not seen in the Big Apple since the building of the Twin Towers in the 1970s.
In terms of both cost and ambition, Hudson Yards is the largest public-private real estate venture in US history and promoters have sought to justify the estimated $5.6 billion in taxpayer subsidies with predictions that the city will recoup the investment through increased revenues from the resulting economic development.
Yet according to Bridget Fisher, a researcher with the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at The New School, city officials structured the support for Hudson Yards in a way that undermines essential public services.
The plan reserves to Hudson Yards whatever additional property tax revenue materializes from the surrounding neighborhood, she told EFE.
“So even in times of economic crisis – like now – that result in budget cuts to essential public services such as health care or schools, Hudson Yards’ commercial property taxes will go first to supporting the city’s most expensive neighborhood, a so-called ‘billionaire’s fantasy city,’” Fisher and colleague Flavia Leite said in a report published last summer.
Lewis said that he sees a risk that Hudson Yards will be forced into bankruptcy.
“These are the biggest developers in New York, so they’re very strong, but another year or two I expect failure,” he said.